Review: The Humbling by Philip Roth


Neil Stewart laments the fact that an actor struck wordless isn’t the dumbest thing about Philip Roth’s 2009 novel

Philip Roth's The Humbling

Philip Roth has given just one interview to coincide with the publication of his thirtieth book, The Humbling, to Tina Brown at her new online endeavour The Daily Beast. The text preamble that precedes the video interview makes prominent and alarming use of the phrase “at the height of his powers”. This is one of those terms that initially sounds highly complimentary but, on further investigation, is something of a curse. Once you’ve reached the height of your powers, it seems to say, where else is there to go but down?

The Humbling is the latest in the series of slim, death-fixated (thanatocentric?) books that Roth has produced over the last half-decade, including Everyman (2006), Exit Ghost (2007) and Indignation (2008). (Perhaps 2001’s The Dying Animal belongs on this list too, but I would argue that it’s more a summary and potent distillation of his four astounding 1990s novels Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain.) This list goes some way to showing how prolific Roth has been of late; even as The Humbling was announced this spring,  we were told that his thirty-first book, Nemesis, will appear next year. That’s an output that starts to look like it’s going beyond prodigious into somewhere less savoury.

And so to The Humbling, fresh out with a cover illustration that I don’t like any more now than when it first showed up on Amazon, but which dismayingly becomes with hindsight the most likeable element of a very sorry endeavour indeed. This is Roth’s least substantial book in, literally, decades, as well as his nastiest. Martin Amis says of Nabokov’s Lolita that one reads it “nodding scandalised assent”. Here, then, is the anti-Lolita, featuring an age-gap that rivals Humbert/Dolores: a book even this ardent fan read shaking his head in mounting frustration and dismay.

Simon Axler is an actor who has lost his talent for acting — who can no longer make a line or a character come to life. He quits the stage, drives his wife away, becomes a semi-hermit. Then, one day, the daughter of Axler’s oldest friends, horrendously named Pegeen Mike Flaherty, pitches up on his doorstep to announce she has split up from her (female) partner, and proceeds to seduce delighted Axler. What’s going on here seems to be a bizarre recursive project: Philip Roth writing the kind of novel his critics would suggest he always writes: a disagreeable, ageing, venal male narrator becomes involved, inexplicably to the point of magically, with a nubile young nymphomaniac with a taste for the older man. Wish-fulfilment, you might call it; or wank fantasy. One of the less lurid twists sees Pegeen’s ex, Louise, turn up at Axler’s house and start casing the joint; Axler gathers up a shotgun and confronts her over her obsessive behaviour; the scene ends with Axler realising that Louise has come to the house hoping to have him seduce her and thus enact a revenge on Pegeen.

To his horror, Axler’s Hamlet is a lifeless caricature; likewise nothing comes alive in The Humbling. The confrontations are bloodless relatives of the furious, impassioned, rollicking rows of Sabbath’s Theatre or American Pastoral

This is clearly problematic on any number of levels, but there are further indignities awaiting the characters, the reader, and gender politics in general as the plot wends on. The scenarios Roth describes — in the novel’s most calculatedly ‘outrageous’ scenes, Axler and Pegeen bring home a woman they’ve met in a bar and Pegeen sets about penetrating the stranger with a strap-on, under Axler’s supervision — are of course not actually shocking in any real sense: it’s just that it seems, even for a writer whose Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theatre masturbated over his wife’s grave, somehow sadly unsubtle. Sabbath, and the narrator-protagonists of those other ’90s novels, worked themselves into a frenzy over the course of their respective books — language and emotion snowballed into furious, helpless violent extremes, to the point where such horrific and funny acts were a logical culmination — whereas The Humbling‘s set-pieces are showy, stagey and a little sad.

What all this means for this reader is that, having forced myself to desist from uncharitably substituting ‘writer’ for ‘actor’ whenever Axler despairs in the opening pages about his waning, or vanished, professional powers, I got to the end conflating Roth and his character again. To his horror, Axler’s Hamlet is a lifeless caricature; likewise nothing comes alive in The Humbling. The confrontations are bloodless relatives of the furious, impassioned, rollicking rows of Sabbath’s Theatre or American Pastoral, and the situation is an unconvincing one Roth seems to have no interest in making believable. In the Daily Beast interview he says his work on The Humbling began with the book’s first line, “He’d lost his magic”, and the idea of an actor who could no longer act, and that he wrote from there “onward, for me to find out what happened”. And yes, we find out what happens next to Axler; but we don’t know what has happened. We know Axler’s suicidal despair over his vanished talent, that his despair drives his wife from him, that he rejects offers of help from his concerned friends. This is all presented baldly and hastily, most unforgivably in the case of Axler’s wife Victoria: she is given a page or so of infodump (“She had never seen [Axler] give way like this before, not even when his elderly parents had died in an automobile crash with his father at the wheel”), decides her husband’s misery is unbearable, and disappears from the book before the page count has hit double figures. She is, by some distance, Roth’s most insignificant female character.

“What will I do? Where will I get an idea?” Obviously this is a worry that afflicts most writers (most good writers?)

Talking to Tina Brown, Roth describes his “low-level panic” between finishing one novel and starting work on the next. “What will I do? Where will I get an idea?” Obviously this is a worry that afflicts most writers (most good writers?), and likewise its solution is a familiar, almost banal one: “Something just occurs to me”. So it’s simply, one hopes, that on this occasion it just wasn’t something very good that occurred to Roth. This raises questions, I suppose, about the role of his editor: I mean, can one tell someone of Roth’s stature — assuming there even is anyone else of his stature any more — that his new manuscript is substandard? That it reads as if it was written at great haste and submitted unrevised — what interviewer Tina Brown calls (to Roth’s delight) “a vomit draft”? The Humbling is a career low from Roth, a squandering of his still considerable powers.  I can only hope it’s a misstep, a mere blip between more successful books. What’s for sure, we won’t have long to wait to find out. C

Neil D.A. Stewart’s novel The Glasgow Coma Scale is published in July 2014 by Corsair. This review was originally published in November 2009.